Zen Viewer HD, a file-viewing app for the iPad, is like a young first round draft pick who’s quickly moved up to Triple-A—flashy, powerful and polished in some ways, full of potential, but still with some vital elements missing from his game, and not quite consistent enough for regular big-league play.
Ideally, The Skins Factory’s Zen Viewer HD would be your go-to app for reading, viewing, or listening to many common file types, including (but not limited to) PDF, .rtf, .txt, .doc, .xls, .ppt, and Pages documents; .jpeg, .gif, .png, and .tif images; m4a, .mp4, WAV, AIFF, and AAC audio; and .mov, .mp4, and .m4v videos.
You can import and export files with a hard connection to iTunes, via Dropbox, MobileMe, Box.net, and Google Docs accounts, via Wi-Fi from a local Mac or PC, or from another iPad app that supports the “Open in …” command. Zen Viewer HD enables you to compress and uncompress ZIP files, and also to organize files in folders within the app.
Aside from viewing and organizing files, though, there’s not much else you can do with Zen Viewer HD. Some types of files allow you to select and copy text, but that’s it; if you want to highlight or otherwise mark up files, or make attached sticky notes, this is not the app for you. These capabilities are baked into other file readers, especially GoodReader.
More troubling is that Zen Viewer HD has some notable bugs and is missing some capabilities one would expect in such an app. PDF documents often display inconsistently: pages go missing (appearing blank), then reappear during later browsing or after closing and reopening the document. A similar phenomenon occurs with JPG images viewed in “slide show” mode—a black screen shows up in place of a photo during one viewing, but on another go-round suddenly appears.
Zen Viewer HD was also balky when initially connecting to Google Docs and Dropbox. The app sometimes connected with no problem except for a time lag; other times it didn’t connect, displaying a blank box on the screen. Retrieving files from Google Docs, when the connection worked well, could still be troublesome. Zen Viewer HD does not recognize Google Docs folders. It also displays Google Docs spreadsheet files as PDF files, unless you have uploaded an XLS spreadsheet and overridden Google Docs’ default, electing to keep the XLS format.
You can only view Google Docs documents in reverse-chronological order. The ability to view a list of files in alphabetical order is important, especially when you’re looking for one document out of hundreds you may have created or stored. These problems were not evident while using Dropbox: folders were visible, files displayed in alphabetical order.
On the positive side, Zen Viewer HD enables you to play audio and video files without a hitch. Its interface is clean and well-designed, and allows for some customization using a half-dozen free themes as well as six additional themes that you can download for $1 each. And once the files were imported, it did a good job of displaying standard Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, and Excel files, as well as Pages documents.
There’s much to like about Zen Viewer HD—like the prototypical Triple-A player mentioned earlier, it has plenty of style and lots of potential. On its own terms, it’s still a bit iffy, perhaps lacking the reliability most users would want in their default file viewer. And for a few dollars more, there are similar apps that allow you to not only view a wide variety of files (and from more cloud services than Zen Viewer HD supports), but also annotate and alter them.
[Jeff Merron is a freelance writer and editor living in North Carolina.]